WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- A left elbow injury that required Tommy John ligament replacement surgery has proven to be a speed bump in the career of outfielder Shin-Soo Choo. And another, more significant bump in the road might be looming in the not-too-distant future. As an able-bodied male citizen of South Korea, Choo, who turns 26 in July, is obligated to serve between 24 and 28 months in the South Korean military before he turns 30. Such service, obviously, would put a damper on his big league dreams.
"I'm not thinking about it right now," Choo said. "But it would be tough. For two years to not play baseball, then come back, it's really tough. Pitchers? Maybe. But hitters? It's tough." Some loopholes do exist. For one, Choo could become a U.S. citizen, though he hasn't seriously entertained that possibility yet. Choo could also follow the path of South Korean-born ballplayers such as Chan Ho Park and Byung-Hyun Kim and receive a military exemption by helping Korea win the gold medal at the 2010 Asian Games in China. That's easier said than done, of course. Korea won the gold medal in baseball at the 1998 and 2002 Asian Games, but Taiwan won it in 2006. "Five or seven years ago, it was easier to win a gold medal," Choo said. "But not anymore. Taiwan and Japan have a lot of good baseball players now." The Indians were aware of Choo's potential military obligation when they acquired him from the Mariners in 2006, and they are hoping he can avoid service. In the meantime, Choo's more pressing concern is the left elbow ligament replacement surgery that will have him playing catch-up this season. He'll be on the club's 25-man roster once he's fully recovered, but that won't be until May, at the earliest. Perhaps, in retrospect, Tommy John surgery was unavoidable for Choo. Position players aren't exactly prone to the type of debilitating elbow injuries that lead to the procedure. But Choo hasn't always been solely a position player. Before beginning his professional career with the Mariners in 2001, Choo was a pitcher and an outfielder in South Korea. And he was hardly treated with the type of tender love and care that is so common for hurlers here.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.